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3D Printing Unlocks New Possibilities in Titanium Alloy Production

Image Credits: PolyU, Press Release
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Engineering scientists from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), in collaboration with RMIT University and the University of Sydney, are using additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, to address challenges in titanium alloy production.

Their research study, “Strong and ductile titanium-oxygen-iron alloys by additive manufacturing,” recently featured in the esteemed journal Nature, promises to revolutionise the industry’s approach to quality and waste management.

Titanium alloys, known for their lightweight and superior properties, are indispensable in critical applications across various sectors. The research team’s innovative use of 3D printing for titanium alloy production opens up a world of possibilities, with significant advantages such as cost reduction, improved performance, and sustainable waste management.

By using 3D printing, the researchers successfully crafted a new, robust, and ductile titanium alloy (α–β Ti-O-Fe alloy). By incorporating inexpensive and abundant elements like oxygen and iron, the two most powerful stabilising agents and strengtheners for α–β phase titanium alloys, they achieved these remarkable properties. This pioneering titanium alloy holds immense potential for diverse applications, spanning aerospace and marine engineering to consumer electronics and biomedical devices.

When compared to the widely-used Ti-6AI-4V benchmark material formulated in 1954, the new titanium alloy showcased superior mechanical performance, with comparable ductility and considerably higher strength.

While traditional manufacturing methods like casting could be employed to produce this innovative titanium alloy, their limitations may render the resulting material unsuitable for practical engineering applications. Here, additive manufacturing takes centre stage, overcoming these barriers and elevating the alloy’s properties to new heights.

In the pursuit of more sustainable production methods, the energy-intensive Kroll process traditionally utilised in titanium alloy production generates off-grade sponge titanium, amounting to approximately 10% of all sponge titanium, leading to substantial waste and increased production costs.

Addressing this environmental concern head-on, additive manufacturing offers a brilliant solution by enabling the recycling of off-grade sponge titanium, effectively converting the waste into reusable powder, serving as raw material for further production.

The discovery not only paves the way for a brighter future in titanium alloy manufacturing but also exemplifies the incredible potential of additive manufacturing in revolutionising various metal material production processes. With reduced costs, enhanced performance, and sustainable practices, this technology heralds a new era of innovation in the world of engineering and manufacturing.

Dr. Zibin CHEN, Assistant Professor of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at PolyU played a pivotal role as a leading author in the research. Dr Chen shed light on the immense impact of their work, emphasizing that it opens up avenues for recycling over 10% of the waste generated by the metal alloy production industry. By doing so, their technological breakthrough promises to substantially lower material and energy costs for industries, making a significant contribution to environmental sustainability and reducing carbon footprints.

By integrating alloy design, computational simulations, and experimental characterisation, the research has delved into the vast potential of additive manufacturing for the novel titanium alloy (α–β Ti-O-Fe alloy).

The study underlines the transformative impact of additive manufacturing, offering a streamlined approach to producing complex and functional metal parts, accelerating product development while reducing costs. Moreover, this cutting-edge technology enables the fabrication of metal components with unique structures and compositions, a feat unattainable through traditional methods.

In terms of quality enhancement, additive manufacturing presents a game-changer, allowing fine-tuning of the microstructure of metal alloys, resulting in heightened strength, flexibility, and resistance to corrosion and water. The technology also grants the ability to create lightweight yet robust metal parts with intricate internal patterns, pushing the boundaries of material design. This breakthrough discovery not only advances manufacturing processes but also opens up holistic and sustainable material design strategies, all made possible by the remarkable capabilities of 3D printing.

In the realm of advanced manufacturing engineering, Prof. Keith K.C. CHAN, Professor at the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at PolyU, and a co-author of the study, highlighted the significance of their work. He noted that the research serves as a pioneering model and benchmark for other metal alloys seeking to leverage the power of 3D printing to enhance their properties and broaden their range of applications.

Acknowledging the emerging nature of metal 3D printing, Prof. Chan emphasised that widespread adoption in materials manufacturing will require time and further development. Nonetheless, their groundbreaking study lays a solid foundation for the promising future of metal 3D printing and its transformative potential in the realm of materials engineering.

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